Pentagon chief Leon Panetta on Tuesday defended the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq next month in the face of sharp criticism from some lawmakers, arguing Washington had to accept that Iraq was a sovereign state.
In a charged hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta was grilled by Republican "hawks" who accused President Barack Obama of abandoning Iraq for his own political gain without making a genuine effort to broker a deal with Baghdad to keep some troops in place.
In a testy exchange with Senator John McCain, Panetta sparred with the lawmaker about how talks ultimately collapsed on a future US military mission.
"That's not how it happened," Panetta said.
McCain shot back: "It is how it happened."
Panetta voiced frustration with McCain's portrayal, saying Baghdad was not prepared to grant legal immunity to US forces and said it was not the case that the United States could simply decide what it wanted in Iraq.
"This is about negotiating with a sovereign country, an independent country. This was about their needs," he said. "This is not about us telling them what we're going to do for them or what they're going to have to do."
Although the Iraqi government was ready to adopt legal protections, US officials wanted the country's parliament to ratify the safeguards but that proved too difficult, Panetta said.
"I was not about to have our troops go there... without those immunities," he said.
Panetta, however, left the door open to a future US military presence if requested by Baghdad, an apparent contradiction of previous White House statements.
"We're prepared to continue to negotiate with the Iraqis. We're prepared to try to meet whatever needs they have," he said.
McCain, a Vietnam war veteran who pushed hard for the troop buildup in Iraq in 2007, said the Obama administration undermined the talks because it was either unwilling or unable to propose troops numbers or missions to Iraqi leaders early in the negotiations.
He and his fellow Republicans accused the White House of "political expediency" in pulling out troops and said it would leave Iraq vulnerable to the influence of neighboring Iran.
McCain said he believed that the decision "represents a failure of leadership, both Iraqi and American, that it was a sad case of political expediency supplanting military necessity, both in Baghdad and in Washington" with serious consequences for Iraq and US national security.
The US military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, told lawmakers he was concerned about the future of Iraq after the pullout and acknowledged that no commander had recommended a full withdrawal from Iraq.
But he said he agreed that American forces could not operate without legal protections.
"In anticipation of the question about whether I'm concerned about the future of Iraq, the answer is yes," said Dempsey, citing Arab-Kurd tensions in the north.
But the general said "this isn't a divorce" and that the United States would maintain a role advising Iraqi's army, including counter-terrorism training "inside the wire" at camps for Baghdad's special forces.
Panetta said he was confident that Iraq could manage its security and counter Iran's influence.
"To be sure, Iraq faces a host of remaining challenges, but I believe Iraq is equipped to deal with them," he said.
Iraq's political leaders "basically reject what Iran's trying to do," he added.
Following the US invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, US and Iraqi leaders agreed a security pact in 2008 that called for the departure of all American troops by the end of 2011.
With only 24,000 US troops still on the ground, the withdrawal from Iraq is in full swing, with convoys and aircraft transporting troops and equipment out of the country.
Instead of uniformed troops, the United States plans to employ up to 16,000 private contractors to handle security and other tasks in Iraq that were performed by American soldiers.
Iraq has declined offers from Turkey and Iran to train its forces, after the failure of talks with Washington on a post-2011 training mission, a high-ranking Iraqi official said Tuesday.